Worshippers and clergy are adjusting to attending worship services online since churches, synagogues and mosques were shuttered March 17 by Gov. Janet Mills’ ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.
Many houses of worship throughout the state are live streaming services on YouTube, Facebook or their own websites. They also are holding prayer services and learning sessions on Zoom, an app that allows everyone who’s tuned in to see each other.
Some services include music and a few choir members and lay readers, while some spiritual leaders conduct their services alone standing before empty pews. Mainers who have attended online services said that it has been a surprisingly fulfilling experience but is not the same as worshipping with their fellow congregants in person.
Linda Nelson of Bath, who helped revive the Stonington Opera House and is now deputy director of Portland Ovations, said that she misses feeling part of a shared experience.
“I love gathering together with others, many of whom I do not know well or at all, to listen, make music, and become immersed in the transformative power of our shared stories, visions and beliefs,” she said. “The power of gathering in the same room and sharing an experience never disappoints me.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is offering live streamed Masses from multiple locations for the 300,000 or so Mainers who identify as followers. So far, participation has exceeded expectations, according to Dave Guthro, spokesperson for the diocese. Masses began live streaming the weekend of March 21 and 22.
“At St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Bangor, the four weekend Masses live streamed from St. Mary’s and St. John’s in Bangor drew over 2,000 viewers,” he said. “Across all parishes, it looks like there were close to 100,000 viewers for Masses that first weekend.”
Amy Fried of Bangor is a member of Congregation Beth El, the city’s Reform synagogue. Earlier this month, she attended a Shabbat service and Torah study led by Rabbi Darah Lerner.
“It was wonderful to see my fellow congregants and participate in worship and learning,” Fried said. “Rabbi Lerner gave us some time to visit with others and organized these so that congregants didn’t just listen but participated in various ways. These were fulfilling experiences and included members of our geographically very far-flung congregation.”
Orono resident Mary Cathcart and a longtime worshipper at St. James Episcopal Church in Old Town had a similar experience attending an online prayer service last week.
“It was good to see people’s faces and hear their voices,” she said. “Our former deacon and her wife, who are in Florida for the winter, attended, as did a former parishioner who now lives in Washington, D.C. One member who is disabled and hadn’t been able to get to church service in months was able to participate, and she and we were glad she could be with us.”
What Catholics, Episopalians and Anglicans said they miss most is communion, which in those denominations is distributed weekly.
“The irreplaceable aspect of my worship is celebrating the Eucharist,” the Rev. Hall Wheeler of Bangor said. “Otherwise I pray the rosary, watch the Mass on EWTN, read posts from my bishop and remember the good things that I experienced in my early years with a remarkably gifted pastor.”
Wheeler was ordained by the Conservative Anglican Church of North America, based in Texas.
Congregants aren’t the only ones struggling to make connections online instead of in houses of worship. It is a new experience for many members of the clergy as well.
“Celebrating Mass with a virtually empty church over the last 10 days or so has been a challenging experience,” said the Rev. Frank Murray, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, which includes churches in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport. “I wonder how many people are with me, if I am understandable, if I am connecting with them with my homily, how they are doing with their isolation and the list goes on.”
Murray said that celebrating Mass in an empty church has made him realize how many of those concerns are resolved by looking into the faces of his congregants.
“We read each other’s faces quite well when we are sharing church space together,” he said. “I do believe the present experience of being apart physically has helped me appreciate how the Holy Spirit is working very successfully to still bring us together. I am feeling a profound sense of closeness with the parish family of faith.”
In addition to live streaming Masses, Catholic priests are hearing confessions in church parking lots instead of church pews, their offices or old-fashioned confessionals. More people may be seeking the sacrament of reconciliation because of the novelty of the experience.
“People are appreciative of the opportunity to walk away with a clear conscience with everything else going on in the world,” said the Rev. Seamus Griesbach, director of the diocesan Office of Vocations, who has been offering drive-thru confessions. “It is obvious that everyone is under more stress, and so that comes through in the struggles that they have. But people are also doing some significant questioning and reevaluating of their priorities and relationships. … We meet them where they are and try to help them find freedom, healing, strength and peace.”
Across denominational lines, churches have posted on their websites and Facebook pages that offerings are down since collection plates aren’t being passed at services. Most congregations have asked online worshippers to contribute online or by mailing in donations.
For many, going to church online also offers a huge variety of choices about where and what time to worship. Nelson on a recent Sunday decided not worship at her local church online but at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Boston, which is affiliated with the Berklee College of Music.
“Even participating from afar brought me to tears,” she said. “Faith in the miracle and beauty of this world and life, so much bigger than us and beyond our control, is the greatest gift my mother gave me as she waked me grumpily out of bed those many childhood Sundays.
“And communion — we do this with every sacred bite and sip we take,” Nelson continued. “Food is sacred, all is God, and the more we take it in that way perhaps the more we metabolize it into being good spouses, good friends, good neighbors.”